Why digital communication means more – not less – contact with patients

In 2014, NHS England committed to delivering a ‘paperless’ NHS by 2020. At that time, 60 per cent of UK citizens had a smartphone and 84 per cent of adults used the internet, but only two per cent of the population reported any digital interaction with the NHS. At Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, we’ve moved to mostly digital patient records over the past six months. We’re now preparing to offer patients the choice to receive their appointment letters via email instead of through the post. And we’re leading the development of a Care Information Exchange which will give patients access to key aspects of their records through a secure online portal, allowing them to take a greater role in managing their own health and care. Here, head of systems solutions John Kelly explains our digital achievements so far and the potential of these initiatives to help us deliver more efficient, collaborative care. 

For a long time now, you have been able to do your banking, shopping and travel bookings online if you choose. When it comes to your healthcare, you’re generally obliged to go back to paper records, letters and phone calls. But this is changing.

Digital health records

At Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, we have moved from mostly paper records to mostly digital health records for our patients over the past six months. Paper records can only be in one place at one time, whereas patients may have multiple conditions and be seen by different clinical teams at any one of our five hospitals. Now if a consultant is asked for an opinion on a patient, they can access the record from wherever they are. And the legibility of doctors’ handwriting ceases to be an issue!

Once you have digital records, other improvements start to become possible. When you have your blood pressure, pulse and temperature taken on a hospital ward, the usual process has been for the results to be written down and then transferred into your records. Now, a combination of wireless technology and digital records allows those measurements to go straight from the monitor into your record. This increases accuracy and gives the healthcare professional precious extra time to devote to patient care. For a task that is repeated many times each day, it is surprising how minutes quickly add up into hours and days of saved time. In the first five months of using these wireless monitors, we calculated that 1,408 hours of clinical staff time were directly released for patient care, and this total is building every month.

Communication with patients

The usual way to inform a patient about the time and location of an outpatient appointment is by letter. But printing and posting appointment letters is slow. From the booking of the appointment to the letter going through your letterbox can take a week or more. To improve on this, we are starting to offer letters by email. At many of our outpatient clinics you can avoid the queue by telling staff you have arrived via a check-in screen. You can also make sure we have the right address and telephone number. The next step is for the check-in screen to let you give us your email address and have your appointment letters emailed rather than posted. This will save money and the letter will arrive in seconds rather than days. If you have email on your phone, you will always have the letter with you when you arrive for your appointment.

Managing your records

We believe secure digital technology can be used to facilitate more collaborative working relationships between patients and healthcare professionals. That’s why we’re introducing a new platform called the Care Information Exchange thanks to funding from Imperial College Healthcare Charity. The Care Information Exchange provides secure online access to health records for both patients and professionals.

We are starting to sign up patients in selected services to get access to appointments information, blood test results and x-ray reports on the Care Information Exchange. This will give patients their appointments and test results from our Trust in one place. Patients can share the record with other health and care professionals and, if they choose, with relatives or carers. It gives patients the assurance that everyone involved in their care can access their current health records at their discretion.

Having up-to-date information about their care can help patients to become more involved in managing their own health and can help avoid the inconvenience of attending appointments which are not really necessary. Other pilot projects are in preparation including in partner health and care organisations across north west London. You can find out more about this new system at the Care Information Exchange website.

Managing your health is not yet as easy as managing your bank account online, but we’ve made some real progress, especially over recent months. The real opportunity, though, is ensuring we use the efficiencies we gain to invest in building stronger partnerships between our clinicians, patients, carers and families. 

Watch this video to find out how we use wifi in our hospitals